Checking in on Repatriated works

One of the Lysi frescoes on display in Houston at the Menil's Byzantine Chapel Museum
One of the Lysi frescoes on display in Houston at the Menil’s Byzantine Chapel Museum

Rachel Donadio reports for the New York Times on a number of repatriated antiquities back in their nation of origin. The list includes la dea di Aidone in Sicily, the Weary Heracles in Turkey, the Lysi frescoes on Cyprus, and the Euphronios Krater in the Villa Giulia.

Only the Lysi frescos, returned by the Menil to Cyprus after a 20 year loan agreement were acquired with permission of the creator communities:

In rare cases, a repatriation is arranged so that a collector knowingly buys works identified as stolen to protect them from being further damaged or broken up. That happened in 1985, when the art collector Dominique de Menil bought some 13th-century Byzantine frescoes from a Turkish art dealer after the Greek Orthodox Church of Cyprus and government officials there identified them as having been stolen.

When she was first offered the works, depicting Christ Pantocrator and the Virgin Mary with the Christ child surrounded by the archangels Michael and Gabriel, Mrs. de Menil was skeptical about their provenance. She quietly approached the Church of Cyprus, which said the frescoes had been secreted out of the apse and the dome of the church of St. Euphemianos in Lyssi, in a part of Cyprus that had been annexed by Turkey in 1974.

Mrs. de Menil pledged to buy them — and return them to Cyprus in 20 years. The Menil Collection in Houston paid for the frescoes’ restoration, which took years. It built a bespoke minimalist space for them next to its Rothko Chapel and put them on display there in 1998. Themuseum had been hoping that Cyprus would extend the agreement and allow them to keep the works on view.

But in 2012, Cyprus asked for them back, in a climate in which the new government and leadership of the Church of Cyprus have been increasingly aggressive in their campaign to call attention to the deconsecrated Christian religious sites in the areas of Cyprus that Turkey still controls.

The Menil Collection made good on its promise. “Of course we were sad, but in the end we were very proud because ethically, from a moral point of view, this was exactly what needed to happen,” said Josef Helfenstein, the director of the Menil Collection.

The frescoes are now on view in the Archbishop Makarios III Foundation Byzantine Museum and Gallery in Nicosia, Cyprus’s second-most visited museum, “until the day they will be put back in the chapel,” said John Eliades, the director of the Byzantine Museum. That might not be so easy.

  1. Rachel Donadio, Repatriated Works Back in Their Countries of Origin, N.Y. Times, April 17, 2014,

Getty Announces Return of Morgantina Terracotta Head

The head of Hades, likely looted from
Morgantina, to return to Aidone in 2014

I’ve received a press release from the Getty announcing it will voluntarily return this terracotta head to Italy, specifically Sicily. It depicts the god Hades, and may date to 400-300 B.C.

The Getty press release is slim on details of the acquisition and on what circumstances led to the decision to make a voluntary return. The release states that “joint research” with colleagues in Sicily since 2010 has brought new information to light “suggesting that it was appropriate to return the object”. The evidence is the discovery of four other terracotta fragments near Morgantina which must match this head in some way. The only mention of wrongdoing in the release states that these four fragments were uncovered at “the site of a sanctuary of Demeter, which was clandestinely excavated in the late 1970s.”

The language of the release is careful and I guess serves its purpose. I wonder if there is room here for an analysis of the shape and form that these press releases. I think so. Think about how it differs and resists the words we often use to describe this activity. The words ‘repatriation’, ‘Italy’, ‘looting’, and even ‘crime’,  are not mentioned. But despite the problem I have with the language, it appears from the release as if the Getty is doing cultural justice here. The object was looted and it is returning home soon. But I’m left wondering how many other objects from sites like Morgantina does the Getty retain. The release ties the return to the discovery of physical evidence at the site, and connects this with the object. But what about the contemporary evidence like who bought the object from who and what questions were asked when an object was acquired. We know from investigative reporting like Chasing Aphrodite how little inquiry was made. But this would be so much more direct, cheaper and useful than elaborate scientific tests. My rule of thumb when visiting a museum is, if they don’t tell you about the history of an object, there is very good chance it was looted.

This head will be transferred over to the Archaeological Museum in Aidone, where it will likely be displayed near “la dea di Aidone” previously known as the Getty goddess, returned in 2010. The head first will be a part of a Getty-organized traveling exhibition titled “Sicily: Art and Invention between Greece and Rome” which will start at the Getty, stop off at the Clevelend Museum of Art, and culminate in Palermo in June 2014.

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A postscript to "Chasing Aphrodite"

la dea di Morgantina

Ralph Frammolino, one of the co-author’s of “Chasing Aphrodite” has a cover story in the November issue of Smithsonian Magazine. It recounts his unsuccessful attempt to interview Renzo Canavesi, a man identified as the previous owner of the statue formerly known as the “Getty Goddess” but now called “la dea di Morgantina”. He wasn’t willing to talk, but we are reminded again of the great reporting done on the statue and the Getty:

While Jason [Felch, his coauthor,] was reporting in Sicily, I went to Switzerland to interview Renzo Canavesi, who used to run a tobacco shop and cambia, or money-changing house, near Chiasso, just north of the Italian border. For decades the border region had been known for money-laundering and smuggling, mostly in cigarettes but also drugs, guns, diamonds, passports, credit cards—and art. It was there in March 1986 that the goddess statue first surfaced in the market, when Canavesi sold it for $400,000 to the London dealer who would offer it to the Getty. 

The transaction had generated a receipt, a hand-printed note on Canavesi’s cambia stationery—the statue’s only shred of provenance. “I am the sole owner of this statue,” it read, “which has belonged to my family since 1939.” After the London dealer turned the receipt over to authorities in 1992, an Italian art squad investigator said he thought Canavesi’s statement was dubious: 1939 was the year Italy passed its patrimony law, making all artifacts discovered from then on property of the state. After a second lengthy investigation in Italy, Canavesi was convicted in absentia in 2001 of trafficking in looted art. But the conviction was overturned because the statute of limitations had expired.

It’s a good summary of a very fine book. And as I’m reading the story again, I’m reminded of Marion True and the Getty and the cover up and the duplicitous nature of her public comments in favor of protection, all while she was acquiring objects. There must be, I’m sure, a story like this for the repatriations from the other museums. But that reporting has not been done yet.

  1. Ralph Frammolino, The Goddess Goes Home, Smithsonian, Nov. 2011, (last visited Oct 21, 2011).
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What did go wrong at the Getty (and elsewhere)?

La dea di Morgantina, as she was displayed at the Getty

The New York Review of Books has published a mostly polite back-and-forth between Hugh Eakin and the authors of Chasing Aphrodite, Jason Felch and Ralph Frammolino. In June Eakin offered a rather tepid review of the book (Felch and Frammolino deemed it “begrudgingly complimentary”). Noah Charney also took note of the review and he and I collaborated on a letter to the Editors of the NYRB, which was not published. I reprint the text of our letter here:

We would like to revisit Hugh Eakin’s review of Chasing Aphrodite: The Hunt for Looted Antiquities at the World’s Richest Museums (“What Went Wrong at the Getty” July 13, 2011). As Mr. Eakin points out, the central antagonist, the former Getty curator Marion True, stands for many as a symbol representing the heart of the larger problem of museums purchasing illicit antiquities. And yet she was the museum-world’s most outspoken critic of the acquisition of looted antiquities. Chasing Aphrodite tells the story of the scandals at the Getty Museum, related to their purchase of looted antiquities and the use of fraudulent appraisals to secure grossly-exaggerated tax benefits. The authors admirably demonstrate that key officials at the Getty new full-well that the treasures they were purchasing were illicit, yet they bought them anyway. Pressure from the Italian government, particularly on the part of the former Minister of Culture, Francesco Rutelli, and the brilliant lawyers, Maurizio Fiorilli and Paolo Giorgio Ferri, has led to the return of numerous looted artifacts purchased by major American museums, including the Met and the MFA, but most of all, the Getty.

Mr. Eakin does well to note that Dr. True, while certainly guilty of serious wrongdoing, is not the central villain in the story of looted art, nor is she even the most culpable individual featured in Chasing Aphrodite, a point mentioned by Paolo Giorgio Ferri as well as others such as Fiorilli and Rutelli, who have collaborated with our our organization, ARCA (Association for Research into Crimes against Art), an international non-profit research group on art crime. When one compares the number of returned objects acquired under the direction of Philippe de Montebello at the Met, one should perhaps wonder why he received accolades and a grand retirement while Dr. True was made an example of. Italian officials had a case against her and in order to prevent further illicit acquisitions they chose to frighten and deter other curators, officials, and museums and drag them into cooperation with the cultural heritage laws of nations like Italy. She was selected because the Italian legal team had a vast array of damning evidence against her, much more so than they had against others who were equally guilty, at the Getty and other museums. As Chasing Aphrodite notes, the Getty in many ways “threw her under the bus” when this came to light, in an effort to distance the institution from the person.

Since long before her trial in Rome began, Dr. True has tried to preach against other curators and museums making the mistake of violating heritage laws. The cynic would say that her only regret was having been caught, but there seems to be a genuine passion in her call for resisting the temptation of a beautiful but looted object, and working to end the purchase by museums of illicit antiquities. Indeed, few have spoken out against the perpetuation of the illicit trade in antiquities with greater fervor.

Becchina sold the Getty this Kouros, which may be fake

The 2011 ARCA Award for Art Policing and Recovery was given this July 9 and 10 in Amelia, Italy at ARCA’s annual Conference on the Study of Art Crime to Paolo Giorgio Ferri, the lawyer who spearheaded the case against the Getty. As he made clear in his remarks at the ARCA conference, an array of prominent officials at the Getty were lured into buying looted art by three renowned leaders of large-scale organized looting rings, Robert Hecht, Giacomo Medici and Gianfranco Becchina, who are truly to blame, and would shame even the villains of a Greek tragedy. While Dr. True is no saint, she does not represent the core of the problem. And in fact she played a part in setting in motion a sea-change in the way in which museums acquire antiquities. For those efforts she should be applauded, and perhaps even put before the ARCA Trustees and Board of Editors of the Journal of Art Crime for an annual award to recognize the good work she did, even while she found herself unable to resist the pressure to acquire some beautiful but looted objects.

Noah Charney
Adjunct Professor of Art History, American University of Rome & Founder and President, Association for Research into Crimes against Art (ARCA)

Derek Fincham

Asst. Prof. South Texas College of Law & Academic Director, Association for Research into Crimes against Art (ARCA)

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Should a Museum Hire Marion True?

la dea di Morgantina

Malcolm Bell thinks so. He holds a position as emeritus professor of Greek art at the University of Virginia and the co-director of the American archaeological excavation at Morgantina. He has written a long review of Felch and Frammolino’s ‘Chasing Aphrodite’. Morgantina was the site of course where the limestone goddess was looted, and had it not been looted, Bell may well have recovered it and its full context. In 1988 when the goddess was sold to the Getty for $18 million, Marion True sent him photographs of the sculpture, asking if he knew about it. He did not, though he does write that his “lack of knowledge offered no form of assurance that it did not come from Morgantina”.

So it is quite surprising perhaps that Bell comes to the conclusion that the book ‘undervalues’ the contribution of Marion True to efforts at reform. He concludes with the following paragraph:

Today the archaeologist’s belief that ancient sites must be protected, and that ancient artifacts are best studied when we know most about them, is widely shared by our museum colleagues. That there has been a convergence of views is owed in good part to Marion True, whose bitter experience offers lessons to all parties. Her contributions far outweigh her mistakes, and were I today to be asked to recommend someone to fill a major museum position, she would be the first person to come to my mind.

Will partisans accuse Bell of not reading the book because he makes a controversial argument, or instead take his arguments on the merits?

  1. Malcolm Bell, The Beautiful and the True,, July 2, 2011, (last visited Jul 2, 2011).

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"Rarely have lawyers been paid so much to lose so much."

Hugh Eakin Reviews ‘Chasing Aphrodite’. An excerpt:

I recently reviewed tax filings by the Getty Trust showing that it paid $16 million for outside legal services between mid-2005 and mid-2007 alone—a period during which it had handed its Italian dealings to a team of lawyers from a high-end Los Angeles firm. (This does not include the $750,000 that, according to Felch and Frammolino, the Getty paid to a “crisis management” firm, also in Los Angeles, for “largely unheeded advice.”) A truer estimate, though, would also have to take account of the hundreds of millions dollars’ worth of art—far more than the Italians would have been contented with in 2002—that was finally turned over to Rome and Athens, leaving the Getty Villa a pallid shadow of its former self. Rarely have lawyers been paid so much to lose so much.

  1. Hugh Eakin, “What Went Wrong at the Getty,” New York Review of Books, June 23, 2011,
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La Dea di Aidone

An Aerial View of Morgantina

Jason Felch reports from Aidone, Italy on the goddess formerly known as the “Getty Aphrodite” returned to Italy:

Since the Getty’s controversial purchase of the statue in 1988 for $18 million, painstaking investigations by police, curators, academics, journalists, attorneys and private investigators have pieced together the statue’s journey from an illicit excavation in Morgantina in the late 1970s to the Getty Museum. 

The Getty returned the goddess to Italy this spring, and a new exhibition showing the statue and other repatriated antiquities from a private American collector and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York was inaugurated here last week. 

The goddess’ new home is a 17th century Capuchin monastery that now serves as the archaeological museum in Aidone, a hilltop village of about 6,000 residents. The cozy museum, which holds up to 150 visitors at a time, contains the most important objects discovered in the nearby ruins of Morgantina.

Someone wrote to me this morning and said that we could offer an apt byline for this story by calling it ‘what comes around goes around’. That may be right, and the law leaves it up to Italy to decide where and how this object should be displayed. One hopes that the original looters will come forward in the coming months to reveal where they unearthed the object in the late 1970’s.

One also wonders whether such attention have been lavished on the statue had the statue remained at the Aidone museum after it was unearthed by archaeologists? Do we need to reconfigure how the public thinks about antiquities, encouraging them to visit them much nearer their original context? Does it matter how many will appreciate and can enjoy repatriated works if they are where they ‘belong’? How important is viewing the goddess in her context, even if far fewer people may seek her out?

In much the same way works of art like Munch’s The Scream, or even the Mona Lisa became widely known after their theft it seems likely that more visitors will visit the small Aidone museum; and one hopes help buttress the local economy in a more lasting way which will forge connections encouraging the locals to act as good stewards to other objects and information Morgantina may hold. The Getty certainly will not be acquiring any recently looted antiquities from Morgantina any time soon and one doubts very much of that $18 million purchase price made its way to the actual looters—those profits seemingly went to the dealers closer to the Getty.

  1. Jason Felch, “Goddess statue: Once a Getty prize, Italy’s goddess statue remains a mystery,” L.A. Times, May 29, 2011,,0,6748034.story.
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